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Home > Etc

Like most cults, the members look so happy

Ben Moor

4 December 2003

Do you ever just look at the calendar and wonder how quickly it went and became 2003? It seems that we were chasing the futuristic year 2000 along time’s motorway for decades, but now we’ve overtaken it, it turns out that it wasn’t so zippy anyway.

Where are our bubble cities on the moon? Our robot maids? Our meal pills? Is being able to watch the DVD of Men in Black II on our computers adequate compensation? Sure, we have video phones now and that must mean we should soon be able to wear them on our wrists which, admittedly, is just about as cool as the robot maids – but while the early-to-mid 20th century saw revolutions in flight, communications and blowing stuff up, the last couple of decades have only seen the evolution and extended applications of existing technology. And the World Wide Web; that was new.

But a couple of years ago everything seemed about to change. Suddenly the world was abuzz with rumours of a thing called ‘IT’. IT was going to change the way cities were built. IT was the first great new technology of the new millennium. But what the heck was IT? Would we all want IT?

IT turned out to be something codenamed ‘Ginger’. Which turned out to be a product called the Segway Human Transporter. Which turned out to be a sort of motorised scooter, the creation of maverick genius, Dean Kamen. Which turned out to be slightly disappointing. They haven’t really caught on over here yet, but in Chicago at the end of last month, the first National Segway Fest was held.
Picture a hundred Americans, standing perfectly upright on what looks like it might be a vacuum cleaner, whizzing around outside a large shiny building, grinning and high fiving each other and thinking to themselves, “Man, this is what we read those comic books for! This is what 2003 should be all about!” Then picture a couple of them crashing into each other for slapstick and bathos. Then stop thinking. You’ve arrived.

The Human Transporter does exactly what is says on the tin – pretty much the only thing it can transport is a human and only that with a very clever proviso; the Segway ‘requires physical abilities similar to ascending and descending stairs without assistance or use of a handrail’ (that from the informative Segway.com). So basically, as long as you’re not already using some sort of wheeled transport to get you about, this is the wheeled transport for you. Yay!

And, get this, the meshes in the gearbox are designed to produce sound exactly two musical octaves apart so that when the Segway moves, ’it makes music, not noise.’ I misquote not.

As well as testimonials from users (‘There has been a rebirth of my life!’; ‘It is fundamentally a relationship between human and machine’) the website features goofy pictures of people in pairs, laughing on street corners and what have you, living the dream on their Segways. You’re meant to pity the backward fools in the background, still using their primitive feet as human transport devices, but in the end you don’t. You just think, ‘what a goofy photo, what kind of fictional street is that?’

The fictional street is in fact all too real. The next generation of Segway is being sold exclusively by NEVRland (actual spelling, sadly) in Celebration, Florida, the gated community started by the Disney Corporation in the 1990s to create the townsiest town in America. A place whose website announces at which times and on which days in December it is going to snow on Main Street to create a Christmassy atmosphere; your basic Truman Show homedome. It’s tidy, polite, terrifying. This is the future where the Segway will rule rather than Back to the Future II’s 21st-century hover skateboards or Blade Runner’s rainy aircars. And fair enough.

Do I sound a bit jealous? That’s only because I am. I want to hate it. I want to be sarcastic and dismissive, but in the end I can’t quite force the scoff out. As a 2000AD reader in my boyhood, I spent years just waiting for jetpacks to become commonplace. They didn’t, so I want to buy into this future. I want to attend the orientation weekend at the Company’s HQ in New Hampshire and drive my Seg with other new recruits. I want to log my journeys online and get on local news.

I want to see the dashboard with the smiley face telling me how my friendly Segway is doing. Websites of Segway users are springing up all over the place. It may well be a cult but, like most cults, the members look so happy! Because they like being in a cult. Don’t believe me? Check out the test ride clip on bookofseg.com of a massed Segway testdrive to the tune of ‘Happy Together’. It’s neat.

The only trouble is, apart from sci-fi nerds like me and those eager to join any cult that would have them (again, me), who actually needs this thing? Its top speed is 12.5 mph for goodness sake. I know sheep that move that fast. I can’t see the police rushing to apprehend criminals on them – although an American friend says her postwoman uses one.

A postwoman who makes music when she moves.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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